Biomedical Research Has Support, But Questions Linger About Funding

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

In December, the U.S. Department of Defense provided an update on the total amount of funding pledged to the Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Manufacturing Innovation Institute. A total of $294 million, including $80 million from the DoD, has now been committed to the public-private initiative, which is aimed at developing innovative manufacturing techniques that could be used to mend and replace cells, tissues, and organs. That’s up from $160 million in June, when the Obama administration first announced the ATB-MII program.

Then came news last week that a number of companies, including Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation (NYSE: ROK), had signed on to back the project. Rockwell, which develops software and provides services for customers in a number of industries, including semiconductors and biotechnology, said it has committed $10 million of the funding total.

The timing of these updates could be seen as a signal to lawmakers and White House officials that even though the ATB-MII project is still in its infancy, it has made progress in the eight months since being announced.

In the weeks following Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election, some feared that public-private research initiatives, including the cancer “moonshot” program championed by former Vice President Joe Biden, could be in jeopardy. However, others point to the subsequent passage of the 21st Century Cures Act as a sign of optimism. The legislation, which provides $4.8 billion to three Obama administration research projects, passed with bipartisan support—a 94-5 vote in the U.S. Senate, following a 392-26 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That augurs well for ATB-MII, says Dean Kamen, a prolific inventor and entrepreneur who is helping to lead the initiative.

“Everybody in Congress knows people that are suffering with cancer and diabetes and who are waiting for organs,” Kamen says. “I would be surprised if anything we’re doing will be affected by politics. Curing disease is not a political problem—it’s a technical one.”

But many institutes and agencies devoted to scientific research—including some established during the Obama administration, and others that have been around for decades—require funding appropriations over multiple years, says Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Everything can be up for discussion and reconsideration with a new administration,” he says.

However, Hourihan adds that with programs that have received publicity and millions—or even billions—in funding commitments, “once things get going, it can certainly be harder to make a change if there are sufficient stakeholders involved.”

Moreover, says Hourihan, there’s been a GOP majority in both houses of Congress since the 2014 midterm elections, and during that time there hasn’t been a major decline in government funding for basic research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

“The NIH tends to be one of the more popular science agencies [among lawmakers],” he says. “The fact that 21st Century Cures passed, to me, is further evidence for that general state of being.”

One potential cause for optimism for those hoping to see the ATB-MII program achieve its goals is that one of its key backers is the DoD, and military spending tends to be higher under Republican presidents.

“This is certainly an administration that is going to be friendly to defense spending,” Hourihan says.

Rockwell Automation, for its part, says it is “thrilled” to be among the groups supporting the … Next Page »

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